Dave the motorhome is sitting the weather out at Gerakas Port, non-plussed by a little rain in the way only folks on an age-long trip can be. We’re awaiting the resumption of perfect weather to take the mountain road up towards Nafplio north of here. A German couple have just arrived in their motorhome, here for three weeks and they understandably seem a tiny bit miffed at the turn in the weather. I chatted with the chap, who’s name I didn’t get. He told me he’d lived in the UK near Oxford for 5 years, teaching German as a foreign language, followed by 5 years in Italy. Of course he spoke perfect English, and had probably seen more of the UK than me; I’ve never been to the Highland Games but he has. He also said they’d come to Greece for eight days once, from Hamburg in northern Germany. I told him the idea of such a long journey for such a short holiday was quite incredible to most Brits (us included).
As the lightning flicked on and off among the sodden hills around the fjord yesterday, we took a video of what appeared to be a strike on a yacht which had earlier moored next to the taverna tables. Once the torrent eased off the Austrian owners sailed it over next to us, mooring it lengthways alongside the dock. After much rapid-fire finger action on the laptop Ju managed to capture the frame of the strike against one of the many metal ropes, whose purpose is unfathomable to me, and took it over to show them. Nope, they’d not been hit as all the electrics were working; it was a trick of the light. We also discovered they’d moved over here as sleeping with the boat rocking sideways was impossible, but OK endways on. Thankfully Dave’s rock solid, most of the time.
This morning the rain continued. We ate Greek yoghurt and honey for breakfast, something we’re advised the Greeks themselves never do, but it was delicious (I’m back on the 10% fat stuff, the low fat stuff was a little like water). Out came the books, Ju’s ploughing through Venice apace; I’m enjoying Birds Without Wings in a sober kind of way. It’s famous (the author also wrote Captain Corelli’s Mandolin) and again I’d never heard of it, I just spotted a recommendation for it in the Lonely Planet guide, in a section about Turkey as it’s about the great ‘katastrofi’ in Greek history. In 1919, in the wake of WW1, Greece effectively invaded Smyrna (it’s now called Izmir in modern Turkey) in an attempt to annex it. The Turkish army kicked them out in 1922, and massacred somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 inhabitants of the city, no-one seems to know. That wasn’t the end of it though. Greece was forced into a treaty with Turkey which forcibly shifted Greeks from Turkey into Greece and vice versa; known these days as ‘ethnic cleansing’. Communities which had been mixed for centuries were decimated and Greece came off worse, having to find room and food for 1.3 million immigrants; Turkey only received 300,000.
I met a man today who was born amidst this catastrophe. There is a set of steps in the small village here which lead up through the waterside tavernas and into the houses behind and above them. It looks as though it ascends into someone’s garden; we only know differently as we came down that way in our feckless hunt for the brown-signed ruins yesterday. An old man said ‘hello’ to me from a seat angled to look out from his balcony over the sea. I said ‘hello’ back and he spoke some more words in English, drawing me in, but quickly reverting to Greek. ‘I am 92 years old’ he told me. His chest seemed to puff out and he smiled. I never know what to say to this kind of statement, my usual gambit is to make light of it, feigning denial of the truth. I tried this, but he just laughed it off. Over the course of a few minutes of mime, my atrocious Greek and his broken English he told me he’d been a fishermen here, in the days before engines (mimed rowing). His mother had lived here before him. He’d spent over 20 years in New York, working for his son, doing what I couldn’t glean. I asked if he’d enjoyed his life. He hesitated and I though he’d not understood but he had, he was contemplating. ‘Yes, but not going away’. He’d had to go to the US ten times. Greece is famous for it’s diaspora. This beautiful country has everything but money. I asked if I could take his photo and he looked bemused but said OK. When I tried to show it to him on the camera’s screen he pointed to his eyes, milky with cataracts He’d still a firm handshake though, seeing me on my way with a ‘good luck’.
I walked around the fjord thinking about this man. He would have been 18 when the poorly equipped Italians attempted to invade Greece on Mussolini’s ego-driven New Roman Empire whim. Perhaps he took part in the united Greek force which halted them almost at the border with Albania. He’d have lived through the 1941 winter, when the occupying Italian and German armies requisitioned vital food and half a million Greeks starved to death. The defeat of the Axis didn’t bring much respite for Greece, as the country was racked by a British-backed civil war to avoid the communists gaining control (they still seem popular here judging from graffiti). He would have been 46 when Greek democracy was strangled by a military coup, the country enduring 7 years of fascism between ’67 and ’74, with political prisoners being rounded up and imprisoned, many maimed. I couldn’t talk to the old fella about any of this stuff, partly out of unease at the prospect of the scale of my ignorance being revealed. Perhaps he’d avoided the worst of it in this quiet backwater, and in his years of enforced economic emigration.
The bay’s been quiet today. A few polished cars arrive, driving all the way along the single track quay and turning opposite us in the only place they can without pulling off an Austin Powers style 35-point turn. I joke they’re ‘rich Athenians’ but many of them speak French, German and English. It seems this tiny corner of the Earth gets its fair share of us outsiders. The al fresco taverna tables again have chequered cloths on them, having been whipped off yesterday in a whirlwind as the rain splotted down, the fastest non-mechanised human movement I’ve seen in weeks. We’ve pulled the map out and unfolded it, working through a route for the coming days. The map has a large chunk of eastern Turkey on it, plus southern Albania, Macedonia and Bulgaria. It’s huge, with a thin highlighter line snaking around one corner of it to remind us where we’ve been. I’d like to visit it all, every corner of it and I joked about how unfair it was we have to go back home and earn money, how inconvenient! In all seriousness we’ve a good month or so left in Greece and will pack in some of the great sights, and hopefully meet more Greek folks and get a better sense for them.
Talking of Greek folks, a parting shot. As the rain came back in the early afternoon we popped ‘Zorba the Greek’ onto our laptop. It’s a great film, although I’m left completely bemused as to what the plot was. It paints the contemporary Cretans as spiteful murderers, peasants and thieves from the still-warm dead, but Zorba himself is a character to cling to. Although he’s larger than life itself, the stuff still spills from him as he owns the screen, coming out with statements like ‘a man needs a little madness, or how else will he break free’. The English protagonist in the film, all white suits and clumsy formalities, plays his part perfectly, he reminds me of me. We’ll have to keep an eye out for our own Zorba.